LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A broken-in Indiana Hoosiers hat sits in Brandon Beachy’s locker in the Braves clubhouse, crimson with the “IU” logo in cream across the front.
These days, with the Hoosiers gunning for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Kokomo, Ind., native can wear it with a little more pride than when they missed the tournament five times in an eight-year stretch from 2004-11.
So, too, can he cheer a little louder for once downtrodden Notre Dame, which is coming off an appearance in the BCS Championship Game.
“As a Notre Dame football fan and IU basketball fan it’s been rough (during) my life,” the 26-year-old said. “We’re moving in the right direction. It’s giving me a little bit more to be excited about in the offseason, that’s for sure.”
Beachy is surely searching for things to get excited about during a trying offseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
In 13 starts last season Beachy looked like a rising star in Atlanta’s rotation, going 5-5 with a 2.00 ERA, which at the time led the majors, a 0.96 WHIP and 68 strikeouts in 81 innings. But on June 16 against the Orioles he was pulled with what an MRI showed was a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
On June 21, Dr. James Andrews performed the operation, which takes 12-14 months of rehab.
If spring training, especially one extended by a week due to the World Baseball Classic, moves at a glacial pace for most players, it’s amplified for Beachy as he regains his arm strength.
He’s progressed from throwing on flat ground from 120 feet and is at the point where he’s throwing bullpen sessions – and this comes while the rest of Atlanta’s starting rotation is working out the kinks in games.
“I’m far enough into this process that I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not on the same schedule as everybody else,” he said. “I’ll just come in and do my job every day.”
Beachy is targeting a mid-June return, though nothing has been made official.
“We’ve got the rehab schedule … it’s really going to depend on how the mound sessions go,” he said.
But as he works his way back from a surgery that since its namesake underwent in 1974, has seen hundreds of players follow suit, Beachy doesn’t have to look far to find success stories.
Tim Hudson underwent the procedure in 2008 and after some promising starts in ’09, went 17-9 in ’10 with a 2.83 ERA and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year. Then there’s Johnny Venters, who had Tommy John in ’06 and almost quit the game in ’08 but regained his form and has posted two seasons with at least 93 strikeouts and Kris Medlen had the surgery in 2010 and less than two years later would deliver a run in which the Braves won 25 of his last 26 starts.
“There’s a lot of guys that if I’ve got a question about what I’m feeling, they’re more than willing to tell me whether that’s normal in the process or not,” Beachy said.
As he continues his slow road back his spot as Atlanta’s fifth starter looks to belong to Julio Teheran, the No. 1 pitching prospect in the organization four years running and 31st in MLB.com’s top 100.
“He’s a guy I’ve played with in Danville (rookie ball) and in Rome (Class-A) and I’ve seen what he can do,” Beachy said. “Hopefully he can translate that to the big-league mound this year.”
Teheran was dominant two years ago in Triple-A Gwinnett, going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA, but the 22-year-old struggled last season. He posted a 5.08 ERA and he allowed 18 home runs in 131 innings and had a 4.91 ERA in four major-league starts.
But Teheran broke out of his funk in the Dominican Winter League and has carried that into an impressive spring thus far, including last week’s performance against the defending AL champion Tigers in which he struck out five in four innings and allowed one run.
If Teheran doesn’t deliver, the Braves could look to Sean Gilmartin to fill that void until Beachy returns.
Still, the young guns remain unproven. It’s Beachy, in his pre-injury form, who has shown the capability to be the fifth starter that can help make the Braves staff of Medlen, Hudson, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm, among the NL’s elite.
But any thought of that is still months away and nine months removed from surgery, Beachy can offer only one certainty.
“It feels good so far,” he said. “The rehab’s going well.”